The Hartford Courant, which provoked a lawsuit over an ill-fated aggregation experiment, quietly settled the case last week. The settlement is a vindication for the small newspaper that sued, but the outcome also means that media outlets will not get a further chance to test-drive the controversial “hot news” doctrine in court.
The fuss began in 2009 when the Courant, owned by bankrupt Tribune Co., appointed an “aggregation editor” to compensate for cuts to its local news desk. For several months, the Hartford paper took to siphoning stories from smaller competitors, including “North-Central Connecticut’s Hometown Newspaper,” the Journal Inquirer. The paper sued, saying its bigger rival had taken its stories about local water and education issues and “reproduced them in substance” on the Courant website, sometimes without attribution.
In its claim, the Journal Inquirer accused the Courant of not only copyright infringement but of stealing its news. This type of “hot news” claim was first recognized in 1918 when the Supreme Court found that the Associated Press could stop the International News Service from rewriting its accounts of World War I. The latter’s practice of wiring rewritten AP reports to the west coast sometimes resulted in the INS beating the AP to press on its own stories.
The hot news doctrine shrunk dramatically in the twentieth century but suddenly took on new importance last year after a New York court ruled that Barclays bank was entitled to stop a financial site, Flyonthewall.com, from reporting on the recommendations it sold to its clients. Numerous news organizations led by the AP filed court briefs to support the bank during appeal proceedings. The bank and the news outlets ultimately lost, however, after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and set out a difficult five-part test that a company must pass to establish a property right in “hot news.”
The Hartford Courant aggregation case provided a new opportunity to test the boundaries of the “hot news” rules. The paper had argued that the Journal Inquirer’s stories did not qualify as hot news and that its aggregations amounted to “fair use” under copyright law. Those arguments will not be tested, however, because of the settlement, the term of which were not disclosed.
The episode attracted national attention in journalism circles and also resulted in the Courant publisher writing a letter of apology to the paper’s readers. The Journal Inquirer has a detailed account of the events and the settlement here.